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Rediscovering an Ambitious Sketch Comedy That Never Caught On

Sometimes, the best gambles don’t pay off.

For instance, in 2016, Netflix signed up eight oddball comics, none of them famous, and gave each a half-hour to create a series of interwoven character scenes. “The Characters” was a new kind of sketch show, less an ensemble than a series of mini-showcases, tied together by a strangely elegiac opening sequence and a commitment to weird, unruly comedy. It did not go viral. In fact, it came and went without generating much attention at all, and the project was abandoned after one season.

And yet, if “The Characters” was a failure, it belongs to the tradition of “Fridays” and “The Dana Carvey Show”: noble experiments, unjustly overlooked, that in retrospect were a hotbed of comedy talent early in their careers. The sensibilities on display, from raucous gross-outs to refined clowning, were too divergent to appeal to the same person. And the quality was decidedly uneven, but the ambition was not.

The most tightly written episode is from Tim Robinson, who would go onto to make the best new sketch series in years, “I Think You Should Leave.” The 2016 half-hour anticipates and even exceeds that cult hit, sharing a fascination with deranged fantasy lives, pranks gone wrong and the fine line between desperation and bluster. Robinson begins with a parody of a Sinatra type (“Ole Two Eyes,” he’s called) swaggering his way through a casino until Lady Luck turns on him and he deflates spectacularly, absurdly, even tragically.

But Robinson’s satire really finds its quirky voice when it goes more abstract, playing a member of the Pointer Brothers band, whose entire act is to charge onstage with rabid cheer and glittery costumes and point at audience members again and again, a one-joke conceit that should quickly wear out its welcome. But Robinson imbues his buffoons with such compassion that you end up invested in their inevitable downfall. There’s also the boasting pro wrestler who keeps losing and the lonely dad who fall in love with his daughter’s boyfriend — Robinson somehow finds the comedy in you caring about them. It’s an unusual trick.

Lauren Lapkus is another comic whose later triumph was anticipated in “The Characters.” Her bravura performance in the David Spade movie “The Wrong Missy” proved to be a mainstream breakthrough. Not since Chris Farley has Spade found a partner with as much reckless abandon, stealing every scene with ruthlessly funny physical comedy and bold comedic choices. There’s a similar gusto to Lapkus’s episode here, which shows off her remarkable range, shifting from a Kardashian-like sadist named Whitney Peeps, constantly petting her own hair, to the eye-rolling teenager Todd Chiklet and the world’s saddest stripper, Bamanda.

These episode begins with a dating show in which Peeps cruelly eliminates pathetic bachelors with the catchphrase “Your 15 minutes are over,” but this satire of reality television is the jumping-off point for a other interwoven stories. This is the structure of most of the episodes, evoking the model of “SCTV” more than “Saturday Night Live.”

Phil Burgers, who goes by the name Dr. Brown and who has directed some of the most inventive experimental comedians working on the West Coast, pulls off the feat of shooting an episode in a single shot, which zips in and out of buildings, up and down stairs and through hallways as he change clothes and wigs and switches characters on the fly. It’s not the funniest episode, but it’s the most elegantly orchestrated. And there are moments of inspired nonsense, like a quick scene in a fancy restaurant where a waiter asks Burgers how he wants his steak cooked. He stammers, mulling for an uncomfortably long time, while the camera pans around his guests at the table; by the time the shot pans back to him, he’s turned, randomly, into a werewolf. Then he says: “I’ll have the fish.”

Many of these comics use tricky camerawork to play multiple roles in the same scene. Henry Zebrowski, who has brought rabid soccer fan energy to sketch work, plays a terrible version of himself during the cave man days, the present and even in the afterlife. In an especially chameleonic episode, Natasha Rothwell (Kelli on “Insecure”) not only shifts from a bossy toddler to a senior citizen talking about her days as a nurse during World War II, but in a scene of New York jury duty, she also plays four characters battling in the same room, a tour de force portrait of city life.

While Kate Berlant also takes on several roles, her standout is Denise St. Roy, an impossibly pretentious artist who is the subject of a fawning documentary. Berlant, a singular talent, has never quite found the right vehicle for a breakout, but she gets close here. She has an ear for hackneyed slang as well as Kanye-like self-importance (her character vows to never touch money unless she’s destroying it), and I could see her satirical portrait being expanded into a movie.

John Early, who has since starred in “Search Party” and has a small part in Berlant’s episode, plays a hack Southern comic and the kind of clueless millennial who gets bruised in a trust fall. Paul W. Downs practices broader, more adrenaline-fueled sketch work. Downs starts by snorting the longest line of cocaine I have seen onscreen and adds a scene in which a particular diner complains to a waiter about the severed penis in his pasta.

Many of the comics showcased on this series cut their teeth in alternative sites as well as improv houses, but in recent years, an explosion of character comedy has emerged on social media. Since I wrote about a few of the most popular front-facing camera artists at the start of the pandemic, this field has become more crowded with new viral stars emerging seeming every day. My current favorite is the prolific Blaire Erskine, an Atlanta comic who has a knack for poking fun at the big story of the day through fictional characters in the background, like the wife of the head of QAnon or the daughter of Jerry Fallwell Jr.

There is a rich talent pool of character comics on social media who already have built-in audiences and who could form the foundation of a new sketch show. These comics generally, though not exclusively, aim for the zeitgeist. “The Characters” seemed indifferent to it. That’s part of its charm, but also perhaps why it was not renewed. I have no idea how many people watched the show when it first ran, but by placing bets on weird comics who went on to greater success, Netflix burnished its reputation in a way that doesn’t show up in an algorithm.

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